Fox seeks DPP advice over leaks
Political pressure on the Guardian newspaper over its handling of leaked secret intelligence material intensified as a senior Tory wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Former defence secretary Liam Fox sought the advice of Alison Saunders over the potential for legal action over the transfer overseas of files leaked by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Cabinet ministers said revelations of the mass surveillance activities by US and UK intelligence agencies damaged national security but that any legal action was a question for the Attorney General.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is to be questioned by MPs in December about the publication of files about the operations of eavesdropping agency GCHQ and the US National Security Agency.
He already faces demands from other Tory MPs to confirm whether anyone at the Guardian "directed, permitted, facilitated or acquiesced" in the transfer of the Snowden files to the US or elsewhere.
In his letter Dr Fox - a vocal critic of the Guardian's reporting of the leaks - said there were "accusations that the Guardian passed the names of GCHQ agents to foreign journalists and bloggers".
"Would such activities, if true, constitute an offence under the Terrorism Act 2000 or related legislation, particularly the passing of details of identified security personnel?" he asked the DPP.
"Under what conditions and by what procedures would a decision be taken to prosecute any individuals responsible for such activities and how could such a process by initiated."
In an article for the Sunday Telegraph - in which he criticised what he called the "indiscriminate publication" of damaging material - he did not say whether he intended to seek action.
Mr Rusbridger, he said, had "exhibited no sense of understanding, never mind remorse, about what damage might have been done to individuals or the country".
Asked about the possibility of a prosecution, Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "That is something on which the Attorney General would decide and does decide.
"So you can see the Government's position on that as that isn't something that hasn't happened."
Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond told the Sky News Murnaghan programme the "cat was out of the bag" and legal action could not "reverse the damage" already caused.
"As to whether any particular prosecution or action would make much difference, I think that's a very different issue and it's one for the Attorney General," he said.
"The Snowden revelations have gone global, action against any particular media outlet in any particular country unfortunately is not going to reverse the damage that has been done."
Both ministers backed the verdict of the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ that terrorist groups are changing their operations as a result of the leaks.
Mr Hague said: "Speculating about capabilities make it easier for people who...are seeking to damage our country or to kill people to evade interception.
"That is something that is very, very dangerous and very damaging."
He said the unprecedented public appearance of the spy chiefs before a parliamentary committee had showed there was a "very strong and robust legal framework" of their activities.
But he defended keeping decisions on their operations away from the Cabinet and the Government's National Security Agency (NSA).
"That's because we do have a particular system for dealing with these things where the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary take those decisions, overseen by commissioners who are senior judges who report to the Prime Minister on how we carry out our tasks," he said.
"That's the political and legal framework in which these decisions about intelligence are made. Are they made in much larger groups? Well not they are not but that's because so much of what we do has to be so secret in trying to protect the country from the threats."
Mr Hague joked that all senior politicians expected to have people trying to snoop on their communications - following outrage in Germany at revelations the US bugged Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone.
"We all have to anticipate in the work that we do as politicians, in all countries of the world, that somebody somewhere is trying at least to look at our communications," he said.
But he also pointed out that allies in Europe and elsewhere benefited from UK intelligence activities.
"Our intelligence agencies do very often save lives in other countries. I've seen many specific instances of that in the last three and a half years. So it is of benefit to other countries as well."